Monday, August 17, 2015

Summer Reading

reading a book set in Michigan while in Michigan

This is a partial summer reading list, which appeared in slightly different form on Roy Christopher's always excellent Summer Reading post, and with one addition:

Alphonso Lingis’s book Trust (University of Minnesota Press, 2004) is a fascinating blend of travel writing, philosophy, and what keen David Foster Wallace scholars might identify as a prose experiment in 'the new sincerity'. It is the kind of book that makes one want to write, and also to observe—and how to balance these impulses becomes a dynamic puzzle, a puzzle the book both solves while also flinging all the pieces at the reader.
I was won over by Sarah Manguso’s Ongoingness: The End of a Diary (Graywolf, 2015), a book that makes the reader question the very premises of the book while persevering and following through to its satisfying conclusion. It is a book that accepts a certain constraint, and stays true to it—and the result is at turns utterly galling and totally admirable. In the end, Manguso throws down a gauntlet for any would-be diarist or journal keeper (really, any ‘author’!): it is a standard of unsettledness, a zombie aspiration for real-time writing.
Joanna Walsh’s forthcoming Hotel (Bloomsbury, 2015) in the Object Lessons series is a daring act of textual lingering, a vivid mashup of object-oriented thinking and psychoanalytic inquiry. When I first read Walsh’s manuscript I was stunned by its intensity and attentiveness—her book opens up whole new fields of thought and imagination for how a seemingly non-discrete ‘object’ might be accounted for, assembled, and written into. I could go on and on about each of the six Object Lessons books coming out this September, but, moving on…
Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven (Penguin, 2015) is such a wonderful post-apocalyptic novel that it immediately replaced Cormac McCarthy's The Road on my 20th-century American Fiction syllabus (we end with books in/about the present moment). One of the things critical things that Mandel's novel has that McCarthy forgot to include is his ruined landscape airport.
Finally, Margret Grebowicz’s excellent The National Park to Come (Stanford Briefs, 2015) blew me away. It is a deft articulation and extension of current eco-theory, breaking new ground, as it were, while recognizing the very fraught terms of ‘breaking’, ‘ground’, and other such naturalized metaphors. The book is framed by a personal narrative, which at once complicates and gives passionate nuance to Grebowicz’s project.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Ends of Things

film equipment for The End of the Tour at the Muskegon Airport in Michigan

I wrote about the film The End of the Tour for 3:AM Magazine.

I can't tell if the current hype around David Foster Wallace—spurred on by the film and countless reviews and paratextual essays—is a watershed moment, or the end of something.

"The End of Something" is a weird little breakup story by Hemingway that takes place in northern Michigan. As I work on my new book about Michigan, I keep bumping into Hemingway's descriptions of the region, and I'm trying to use this proximity in unexpected ways.

The End of Airports is at the press! I'm eager to hold this book, as it really does feel like the end of an era, the end of my writing about airports (okay, probably not).

Meanwhile, the next six Object Lessons books are about to be published!

I'm very happy with how this particular batch of books turned out, and also excited to teach a class at Loyola this coming semester that considers the intellectual background of the series as well as some of the books themselves. We'll start with Jane Bennett's Vibrant Matter and Ian Bogost's Alien Phenomenology, and go from there...

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Evaluated, unplugged

tenkara up in Michigan

I've got a new piece up at Public Books, about the phrase "critical thinking." It's something of a continuation of a post here from a few months prior, and might be part of a nascent short book on liberal arts. 

But mostly this summer I've been working on my book-in-progress called Up in Michigan, which is a bioregional meditation on the Anthropocene—grounded but limited, geographically (if paradoxically) constrained. I'm trying to enact some "situated theory," as Doug Armato referred to it when I described it to him when we were chatting at MLA last january. 

Now with full acknowledgement that I’m “blogging” here, and that the above photo was taken with an iPhone, I wanted to write something about how nice it has been to be relatively unplugged this summer.

During the frantic pace of the school year, life can seem like an unending sprint of checking emails (and responding when necessary), participating in online surveys and committee elections, going to planning and department meetings, eking out rare minutes and occasional hours to write, preparing to teach classes, actually teaching classes, and doing it all over again the next week. Particularly in these hard times for higher education, when the basic premise of what we do* is under scrutiny, when administration turns the screws on any seeming inefficiency or incalculable part of the process, and when Friday afternoons become dreaded, recurring doomsdays for decision-announcing emails—the stresses of the job mount, and morale plummets. 

Summer is thus a welcome respite, and once again I'm very fortunate to be able to be up in Michigan, overspilling my parents' small home with my boisterous family assemblage in tow

Up here I've been revisiting my favorite lakes (and exploring some new ones) throughout the national park, and taking walks in the woods and in the dunes along the lakeshore. My son and I hiked to a massive beaver lodge, and another day we saw a bobcat loping along a riverbank. 

Inspired by a conversation with two of my favorite people last summer, I have been experimenting with tenkara fly fishing—basically a very long limber pole with a line and a fly on the end, and no reel. It's ultra-simple fishing, with minimal equipment—this is what makes it great. It forces you to focus on a small radius of water, aquatic vegetation patterns, and subtle movements. Tenkara was designed and perfected long ago in Japan for mountain stream fishing, and I would love to try it back in Montana where I really learned to trout fish, but for now I've adapted it to marshy lake fishing, for the bass and bluegill that swim in the clear waters of the glacially scraped lakes around my little corner of Michigan. 

I've been reading books that are giving me ideas and offering forms for my current project, and I've been writing (or at least mentally sketching) new stuff about beach combing, canoeing, memory, forest ecology, and bird sounds. But mostly I'd say this summer has been something of a productively negative experience, in the sense that I've been enjoying not being on email, not being on this computer (despite being on it now as I write this). And especially not being glued to my phone (it doesn't get service around here most of the time, which helps; there's wifi, but talk about glacial). I haven't been on twitter as much (I've degenerated into a tweeting parent), and I haven't really missed it. 

Speaking of unplugging, over the past year my university transitioned to online course evaluations, which is great in many respects: one no longer has to take up twenty minutes of precious class time late in the semester to hand out the cold forms, read the instructions verbatim, and then awkwardly leave the room as students glance around in panic. No, instead the students just fill out the course evaluations on their own time, from their computers or iPhones I guess, whenever and wherever they want to. This seems like a good idea, from a standpoint of instructional efficiency as well as in the service of saving vast amounts of paper and labor-time scanning the damn things. I've heard some of my colleagues express wariness, though, as it means that the student can decide exactly when to do an evaluation—for instance, in the moments after you've handed back that "D" paper replete with stringent comments. Watch out, prof.

My course evaluations tend to be fairly positive most of the time. Students generally respond well to my admittedly clumsy oscillations between being laid back and then maybe too intense when we're in the thick of discussions or close reading. There are always a couple students in each class who I can tell loathe my style and resent my attitudes. I try to be welcoming and encouraging to a wide range of students, and to be open to various styles of learning and participating...but finally, it's just me, idiosyncratic weird me, doing my thing year after year, class after class, across assorted literary topics, different books, new students, teaching reading, writing, and, okay, even maybe critical thinking. And most of the time, it works out for all of us.

This semester, though, there was one comment from a student that really stung:
"It seemed like he wasn't really into teaching.
This was on a course evaluation for my David Foster Wallace seminar, so it especially surprised me, as this is a class I offer entirely because of student interest in the late writer, and the course tends to be pretty self-selecting in terms of student motivation. Our conversations are usually spontaneous and passionate as the students and I grapple and tangle with Wallace's challenging, risky, and sometimes galling writing. This class is a joy to teach, because it is driven by sincere excitement (and at times healthy skepticism) concerning this iconic writer qua celebrity—and I get to facilitate and construct conceptual frameworks around our discussions. At best, it's probably one of those undergraduate courses that flirts with the forum & focus of a graduate seminar—and these sorts of classes can be highlights for students and professors alike.

But I will admit that this past semester I was tired by the time the DFW course commenced. On Tuesdays and Thursdays I taught two 75-minute courses back-to-back, at 3:30pm and at 4:55pm. (So, barely enough time between classes to go to the bathroom and/or get a sip of water from the drinking fountain.) The first class was an upper level critical theory course called "Interpretive Approaches"—another course I love, as it is sort of my bread and butter subject matter, and we work our way swiftly from Marx & Freud through Derrida, Barthes, and Kristeva and on to more contemporary thinkers such as Donna Haraway, Judith Butler, Giorgio Agamben, Michael Warner, and Lauren Berlant (among many others). This particular class was fantastic, with all the students engaged and enthusiastic about the material—no easy feat to pull off, given various authors' notoriously frustrating writing styles and general world-upending bents. 

Tuesdays and Thursdays also to tend to get completely jammed with meetings, too, before I teach. So suffice it to say that my student's comment hit me hardest in part because they saw through to something true: by 4:55pm I really wasn't into teaching, at least not after a day chock full of (often pointless or just redundant) meetings, and then my first (exhausting, in a good way) class. I will admit that I rather drifted through some of the DFW classes—even though many of our sessions were still vibrant with excellent conversation, students pushing their understandings of the roles of fiction (and art more broadly), the definition and limits of nonfiction, the author-function in Wallace, etc.

By the end of the semester, yes, I was ready for this break. I'll be recharged and keen to teach my three classes come late August. I'm scheduled to teach a class I've never taught before, an introduction to creative writing (who, me?), as well as a new class tangentially about my series Object Lessons, and my reliably fun course 20th-century American Fiction. It'll be a busy semester, but I'm looking forward to it. 

But for now, here I am, up in Michigan. Evaluated, unplugged.

*From the Loyola website, & this is very much in line with how—and why—I teach: Jesuit education is a call to human excellence, to the fullest possible development of all human qualities. This implies a rigor and academic excellence that challenges the student to develop all of his or her talents to the fullest. It is a call to critical thinking and disciplined studies, a call to develop the whole person, head and heart, intellect and feelings.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Proofreading & endorsements

I just finished reading and correcting the proofs for my book The End of Airports. I like reading proofs: suddenly the amorphous mush of writing, rewriting, and abstract manuscript architecture snaps into place, and it becomes real—almost a book.

Still it can be nauseating, rereading for the umpteenth time sentences you've reworked again and again, and which seem like they'll never quite be right. (What am I even saying here, anyway?!?) So it was perfect timing when, as I was in the final stretch of proofreading, eyes getting bleary, creative part of my brain sore, a second endorsement of the book came in. This one was from the philosopher Margret Grebowicz, whose work I admire enormously (especially her newest book, The National Park to Come). An earlier endorsement had come in from the anthropologist Kathleen Stewart, whose wonderful book Ordinary Affects I remember reading on the Amtrak train in California; this book helped me finish my dissertation about airports, and I've taught it several times at Loyola in a variety of classes (it's one of my favorite books).

I guess the point of this post is to reflect on a stage of book publishing that can feel the most tenuous, and yet also like crossing a threshold between idea and thing: the point at which a book is on the cusp of going to the printer. And generous endorsements can help this transition, affirming what felt for so long like something purely imaginary, a whim, a mere what if? But now, or soon anyway, it will be a book.

Here are the two endorsements, for which I'm very grateful:
“A strong and innovative book. Tracing speculative paths around and through airports and commercial flight, The End of Airports finds new ways to think about, among other things, drones, airport/aircraft seating, weather, jet bridges, viral stories about flight, tensions with new media expectations and technologies, and seatback pockets. A fascinating read for anyone interested in airports and airplanes, but also for readers of cultural studies, media studies, and creative nonfiction.” –Kathleen C. Stewart, Professor of Anthropology, The University of Texas at Austin
“The golden age of air travel is over, but thanks to Schaberg the airport may become the new figure with which to think place, time, labor, leisure, organization, and communication, as well as hope, fatigue, loneliness, and desire-in other words, the most fundamental problems of life in late capitalism. In the tradition of Benjamin, Barthes, and Baudrillard, this book is theoretically incisive, intimate, pleasurable, and on time. Air travel in all of its multidimensionality, as idea and experience, but also as mood, may finally assume its rightful place in the modern psychic infrastructure.” –Margret Grebowicz, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Goucher College
As I sit by Lake Michigan, these endorsements are helping me turn to my next project, spurring fresh ideas for a new book, which is taking me down unexpected paths—both on the ground and in my mind. The paratextual matter of endorsements is rarely talked about; you're just supposed to blush when you get one, then look away quickly. Yet I find endorsements to be crucial not only in terms of selling the book, but also in terms of maintaining the everyday confidence and focus required to keep writing, to keep thinking up new projects.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Runway 1

In my forthcoming book The End of Airports I touch briefly on David Foster Wallace's airport scenes, primarily in relation to the themes of seating and weather. But I missed an important airport instance, which a former student (thanks, Weldon) was good enough to direct me to, from The Broom of the System:
A bright day, in very early September, everything dry, the sun an explicit thing, up there, with heat coming right off it, but a flat edge of cool running town the middle of the day. A jet airplane stood at lunchtime on Runway 1 at CHA, pointed west to go east, a red-ink drawing of a laughing baby on its side, guys with earmuffs and orange plastic flags torn at by the wind off the flatness taking iron prisms out from under the airplane's wheels, the air behind the engines hot and melting the pale green fields through it, the engines hissing through the dry wind like torches, fuel-shimmers. The guys slowly waving the orange flags. The sun glinting off the slanted glass of the windshield, behind which there are sunglasses and thumbs-ups. One of the flag-guys is wearing a Walkman, instead of earmuffs, and he twirls with his flag. 
This passage is exactly the kind of thing I would have lingered on in my first book, The Textual Life of Airports: Reading the Culture of Flight. It shows a seemingly tangential airport scene used as a setting in a novel, and it also reflects a certain reading of this space: it is atmospheric, satirical, theatrical, imagistic.... Let's just take it a sentence at a time.

The first sentence establishes a mixed feeling, of sun-scorched tarmac and a weird autumn zephyr. In the next sentence the jet airplane protrudes, standing still "at lunchtime"—thus lending the aircraft animacy, its own cravings? (Or simply reminding us of the consumptive aura of modernity, more generally?) The next sentence is long and very busy, classic Wallace: "Runway 1" is an utterly vague denotation, yet at the same time connotatively powerful; CHA a misnomer (given the novel's geography Wallace likely meant Cleveland Hopkins airport but that would be CLE; CHA is Chattanooga; never mind, it's fiction); "pointed west to go east" suggests the necessary loops involved in the circuits of technoculture; the laughing baby livery a satire of hyperbolic cuteness and mandatory happiness; the ramp workers with their tattered flags perform the bare life of airport labor, pulling chocks from landing gear while exposed in the "melting" air; humans, roaring plane, and landscape merge in this sentence into a fiery shimmer, a collapse of nature and culture, a swarming of senses, affects and objects. The slowly waved orange flags operate rather like Noh fans, signaling some strange drama in process. Mediated behind the glinting glass of the the cockpit we glimpse the pilots via synecdoches of "sunglasses and thumbs-up"—these are not pilots, these are pilot-functions, people stripped down to their rote roles within this mundane (and maybe horrifying) machine. And yet one ramp worker's previously noted earmuffs turn out to be headphones, presumably blasting a stream of private entertainment into the guy's ears, while the "hissing" commercial maelstrom unfurls all around. Is this a glimmer of individual resistance, even expression? Or is the Walkman a mere corollary to the heavy ensemble, the encompassing regime? Is the airport worker plugged in, or tuned out—or is he enacting both comportments at once? The 'twirling' of the flag leaves us with a playful uncertainty as to the determinacy and/or frivolity of this entire passage—and perhaps with respect to the whole grid of acts and trajectories at work here on the tarmac, and beyond.

Through this striking set of images, Wallace offers a highly condensed meditation on some of the puzzles of the jet age. And this is airport reading.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

D.T. Max visit

It was a pleasure to have D.T. Max visit Loyola this past week. My current students had prepared questions about David Foster Wallace, long-form journalism, and writing in the age of digital media. I was so happy with how the conversation turned out—proud of my students and honored to have Daniel with us for a day. Here's the brief introduction I wrote for the event:


I’ve savored Daniel’s profiles in The New Yorker for years, but it was probably his piece “The Unfinished,” written shortly after the untimely death of David Foster Wallace, that really made me realize the courage and care of Daniel’s reportage. This article was the kernel for what would eventually become his biography Every Love Story is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace.

David Foster Wallace—who would dare to take on such a life? Such a cipher, such a tragedy, such a myth. I’ve been teaching the works of David Foster Wallace here at Loyola over the past several years, and to say that his oeuvre and his personality taken together are daunting is to vastly understate the case. Wallace’s fiction and nonfiction tunnel right into our most modern predicaments, from full-saturation entertainment to the worst kind of hyper-mediated solipsism. 

But here’s the thing: Daniel takes on these big personalities, people who have, or who are, changing the shape of a given landscape—be it the slippery terrain of new media, the conservation of Nature, experimental cuisine, cancer, postmodern literature, contemporary art—and Daniel nestles right into the deepest contradictions, paradoxes, and puzzles that lie inside and around such figures and fields.

What makes Daniel’s writing so perfect for our time is that he dares to tackle the uncertain, the undone, the unfinished—those things that are in play, and up for grabs. He takes these subjects on with earnest attention, and with a savvy eye as to their blind spots and everyday conundrums. He writes the kind of stories we need to ponder, if not yet knowing how they will finish.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

College, it's a mess

I've got a new essay up at 3:AM Magazine, called "Total Satisfaction: The New Irony of Customer Service." The piece came out of the classes I am teaching right now, and a sour experience with AT&T customer service helped focus my angle. It's also part of something longer I'm working on, something about liberal arts education in the 21st-century. (Though that makes it sound rather grand; it's not.)

This semester I'm teaching two upper-level courses: a critical theory course called "Interpretive Approaches," and a seminar on the works of David Foster Wallace. At a few points in the semester my classes have overlapped in entirely unplanned ways, and the collision of themes and ideas has been dynamic, to say the least.

Earlier this week in my Wallace seminar a student asked in all sincerity what the point had been of slogging through a particular novella-length story ("The Suffering Channel")—a story that can seem to be little more than (and maybe too much, at that) densely layered dark satire throughout its many many pages of thick description and spiraling corporatese. My student put me on the spot, if kindly and apologetically, admitting that her question was off topic and unfair, but I tried to embrace the spirit of her frustration. What were we doing there, anyway, when there were arguably so many more important things in life to be spending our time on, as Wallace seems to be getting at in this story?

In a fumbling way, I recalled and paraphrased Tim Morton's line about how pausing can be a radical act (from The Ecological Thought, I think?), and I went on about how taking time to engage art, and lingering on paradoxes and contradictions—these things might actually be forms of resistance in a culture that essentially wants us to hurry up and consume, more more more. But even as I said this I could feel how self-justifying it was, us sitting outside in a circle on a balmy New Orleans afternoon, me pontificating about the inestimable value of college to my sweet and smart but likely (understandably) terrified students on the brink of their lives in the so-called real world.

Lately I've found myself at once acutely aware of the privilege and relative aloofness of the college experience, while also feeling the absolute urgency of this space, this time. I'm well aware that higher education is in something of a crisis mode as it attempts to adapt and adjust to the times, times that are themselves fleeting and perpetually obsolescing faster than most will admit. I realize that college is way too expensive, and that the dwindling tenure system and the corollary precarious labor conditions of adjunct instructors are coming to a head. I recognize the perceived gap between traditional education and the contemporary trends (flip that classroom!).

Still...there is something about when it works, when the discussions get intense, when I see students making sudden connections between their courses, across disciplines. When they get truly excited about  projects, and their creativity and imaginations merge with new ideas and discoveries in texts, in the world. There is something that I'm adamant about preserving, even bolstering, as liberal arts education gets increasingly routinized as well as scrutinized for its inefficiencies. But it's not something that can really be measured or seen through data. It just can't. It's a mess, but one that I'm still glad to participate in, if not clean up, exactly.


Here are some things I touch on in the essay at 3:AM:

paying bills

Subaru cars


Read the essay to see how these things might be related.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Liberal arts, two anecdotes


One morning I arrived on campus to discover a new sculpture in our Academic Quad, which already had about eight sculptures placed with plenty of breathing room around the lawn. In a year of salary freezes, budget cuts, and no new faculty lines, some of my colleagues were outraged that the university was spending money on new (and excessive looking) art. It didn’t help that this particular sculpture vaguely resembled a giant pair of testicles, or in the offhand description of one of my students, “a big droopy ball sack.”

Later that day a team of workers in cargo pants and black T-shirts began to install yet another sculpture in the center of the quad: this one was a precarious stack of wooden chairs that interlocked legs in an intricate pattern. What was going on here? 

It turned out they were props. It was all for a movie.

Unbeknownst to any of us (at least my colleagues and students who wandered around these new sculptures, angry or bemused), a scene for 22 Jump Street was being filmed on our campus, and they were using our sculpture garden as a typical college setting. Only it wasn’t typical enough—there weren’t adequate sculptures for it to really look like a college quad. And apparently one of these simulacral sculptures (the rumors were beginning to circulate), would be destroyed in the making of this scene. (Car chase, wreck.) In order to make a college, you’ve got to break some art.

The next morning when I took my Literature & Environment students outside for class, we noticed that all the maroon Loyola signs had been concealed, and industrial-blue signage that read Metropolitan City State College was displayed liberally throughout the quad. We were now sitting in a newly renamed Meditation Sculpture Garden (stressed by the subtitle “Quiet Zone”). It was a surreal class that morning, discussing the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of ‘wilderness’ while stern grips and sweaty set assistants bustled around us, clamping things down and positioning hidden clusters of spotlights, making our college campus into a more dazzlingly authentic looking place for higher learning. Jean Baudrillard eat your heart out.

Having recently made it successfully through the tenure application process at my university, I decided to quip on twitter that I had been promoted to associate professor of English at Metropolitan City State College. And my friends and followers favorited, retweeted, and congratulated me—in earnest or ironically, no way to tell. Twitter, like so much of the Internet, can be impressively tone deaf.


Last weekend I listened to a Diane Rehm Show podcast called "Worries About the Future of Liberal Arts Colleges." Among some of the more insightful examples and expected axioms offered throughout the program, I was struck the absence of a certain phrase: critical thinking. This phrase has been used to the point of exhaustion to describe something inestimable about liberal arts education, and has become something of a placeholder to describe without describing what college is good for.

Critical thinking: it's something ubiquitous on syllabi (especially for first-year courses) as a learning objective or assessable outcome, but something equally difficult to pin down or articulate with any exactitude. What is critical thinking? Well, you know it when you see it—or when you do it. Or maybe you recognize when it isn't happening, because you notice that everyone is acting like robots (like docile robots, anyway). Whatever it is or is supposed to be, it's a phrase that usually gives me the creeps, because when I hear it or see it, it's often in the service of something mandatory, obligatory, required—it's a rhetorical tic that becomes ritualized and normalized, and is often uttered in the context of drawn-out committee meetings to nodding faculty. In short, the phrase often comes to mean the opposite of something produced by sudden break, rupture, or flash of insight (critical is etymologically related to crisis). 

But so the point is that "critical thinking" as a phrase often gets trotted out in rote ways, as a vague aim of a certain kind of pedagogy. If you put someone on the spot and ask what it really is, you will likely induce some incredible facial expressions that veer between puzzlement and horror, depending on the person. "You know, it's like, thinking critically about things!" Needless to say, this sort of response doesn't win accolades in terms of definitional clarity.

Still, it was odd to suddenly not hear this phrase (or at least, not as a recurring trope) on a radio program focusing on the value of liberal arts education. It was as if all the prior repetitions and insistences had set it (i.e., "critical thinking") up for all too easy dismissal. The guests on the show discussed liberal arts in terms of creating "well rounded" subjects individuals, but not one of them pressed the point that education might actually involve developing a critical stance toward the world. (Save maybe Catharine Bond Hill of Vassar, who kept trying to steer the conversation back to economics.) Because that's really what critical thinking is, isn't it? It's being able to have—and hone, and articulate—a contrary attitude toward things in society or culture that seem totally fucked up to you but toward which most people shrug and go about their business.

Critical thinking is a comportment toward the world as it is, with a mind to changing it for the better. Isn't this what we hope for out of college education, at its best? That students will, in learning about the world from a range of disciplinary perspectives, actually want to change it for the better? Because if so, then all of the rampant and tepid talk about higher education in terms of professionalism, technological proficiency, vocation, career training...this is all a lot of very dull resignation, a stoical attitude that things are basically set in stone now, and all we can do is shape ourselves around the mold. Oh, and make sure you get some critical thinking along the way; tick that box.

Monday, March 9, 2015


I've been thinking a lot about art lately. Cleaning up my office recently, I stumbled on some old paintings I made in Bozeman and in Davis, between ten and fifteen years ago. The one above is of the tamarc at the Bozeman airport, where I worked and even once spent the night. When I lived in Bozeman I watched my friend Greg Keeler turn gloppy acrylic paint into eerie post-western landscapes (like this one). I mostly painted moody little watercolors and gouaches of the mountains, which I called "visual haiku" and sent off to friends and family in the mail. They were really very little: usually no bigger than 1.5" by 3" and often smaller. Here's one:

Later, when I was a grad student at UC Davis, I was lucky to take an MFA studio course with Mike Henderson, and the art students in that class were on fire with brilliant ideas, and were patient with my ramblings about airports (I was working on my dissertation at the time, about airports in American literature & culture). So patient, in fact, that for the final project that semester, Mike had me read one of my essays about airports while he played a partly ruined guitar and the other students played improvised instruments—and then, to top it off, Mike took the recording of this performance and played it in his car during a rainy night while he drove in circles around the Oakland Airport arrivals and departures loop, all of which is captured on film from his videocamera which fell over on the dashboard as he was driving, and so for many minutes you hear the background noise of the studio session while watching the sideways airport signs through the swish swishing of the windshield wipers. I'm not exaggerating. I still have a copy of the VHS tape Mike gave me, in a drawer in my office (and no way to play it). This was a true graduate school experience in northern California, am I right?

Also during my time at UC Davis, I was invited to take part in a meeting of the Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission, when they were were discussing plans for new public artworks to be placed in the renovated Terminal B at the Sacramento airport. Part of my dissertation research involved a public tour of the Sacramento airport art (before the new terminal was finished), which I later reincorporated into my book The Textual Life of Airports. Airport art fascinates me for the ways it plays off the primary experience (and spectacle) of flight.

But less nostalgically, more tangibly and in the present: my son Julien (now four) likes nothing better these days than to work on elaborate art projects at his craft table, turning our kitchen into a glorious mess every few hours. We can barely keep up. These projects range from simple ink drawings and slightly less simple paintings, to sculptures made out of ribbons cut from a giant map and a collage of photographs which we realized was Julien's rendition of something like proto-Instagram.

We think he got the latter idea from Instagram itself: he has been observing carefully as my partner Lara has been working on a new series of scrolling images that play with(in) the digital matrix, crossing lines and forms. (I guess Julien probably hears us talking relentlessly about the possibilities and pitfalls of social media, digital reproduction, art's aura, etc. etc. Walter Benjamin, you called it.)

When I showed Julien the work of Tara Donovan, we had to take a spontaneous trip to our neighborhood Walgreens to buy a bulk pack of plastic cups so Julien could try working with them. And after I took down our Julie Mehretu book and explained the scale of some of her works, we had to go to Lowe's and obtain a giant scroll of contractor's paper so that Julien could unroll it on the floor and get lost in shapes, lines, and meandering squiggles. (Don't get me wrong, I'm not just being romantic here: part of the thrill of this interest Julien has is purely pragmatic, on my end: it keeps him seriously busy for multiple hours at a time.)

Julien got on an architecture kick the other day, and now the floor of his room vaguely resembles the opening scenes of the film Wall·E, where you can't quite distinguish actual skyscrapers from the tremendous piles of rubbish. (When I get weary of his demands to build yet another tower, Julien lambasts me with the axiom, "Builders never give up!")

Last week as I was preparing for my seminar on David Foster Wallace, I glanced over at a small box of Legos that I keep in my office, for when Julien occasionally joins me there on the weekends. I had this sudden thought: Maybe I should take the Legos to class and ask my students to build and present concepts for their final projects! I didn't do it that day, but I think I will plan something like this next semester: get my students to make something, in another medium, before they start to write. Of course writing can be a form of art, too—but we often forget this, even in (sometimes especially in) college English classes.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Revisiting Air Force One

Air Force One w/ AT-ATs © Joey DeVilla

Ten years ago, when I was a graduate student at UC Davis, I wrote a paper about the presidential airplane Air Force One. It was for a seminar on political theory, and I was considering this exceptional plane in light of Michel Foucault's writings on "governmentality"—or how methods and modes of rule get distributed and dispersed (in sometimes the smallest and seemingly most insignificant ways) throughout society and culture. I was actually looking less at the plane itself and more at a very curious ancillary text: the narrative "product description" for the plane that appeared for some time on the Boeing website. (It's gone now, replaced by a far more prosaic "overview" of the plane's features. But it was a fascinating text, revealing so much about the myths and fantasies embodied by this as-if self-evident aircraft.)

The huge modified airliner that normally serves as Air Force One would seem to be an obvious marker of governmental power; at the same time, the plane fades into an ordinary, unquestionable background. The commercial airliner is a mere instrument of modern life. The plane itself is really no more than a specially configured but technically standard jumbo jet deriving from a model that first flew almost half a century ago. It is not, for instance, a unique military design, unlike any other plane we see in the sky. It is a normal airplane, for a normal person who we happen to elect as our temporary leader. But it is also utterly exceptional, with its own privileges, protocols, and contingency plans. Ordinary, and yet not. You can see the clever logic involved.

The current two Boeing 747-200 aircraft that serve regularly and interchangeably as Air Force One have been flying for 25 years.

Now it has been announced that the U.S. Air Force has ordered new 747-800 aircraft to upgrade and replace the existing aging presidential planes. This was a surprising decision to me, because it would have seemed an apt opportunity to update and shift the signifying functions of the presidential plane—say, toward the Dreamliner, which (initial hiccups and glitches notwithstanding) at least offers seminal promises of greater fuel efficiency, environmental awareness, and forward-looking technologies for flight. True, it is not as big as the iconic 747; but might not that itself be conceived as a progressive nudge toward something like modesty in the face of complex global relations? And anyway, if sheer size were the mark of presidential power, a bolder move might have been to select the fully double-deckered Airbus A380 as the new Air Force One. Of course, then there is the matter of national pride; Airbus is Boeing's notoriously European competitor.

The new fleet of Air Force Ones are estimated to last for 30 years. That means we will have over 50 years of the same basic aircraft design ruling from above—and requiring, then, the same basic infrastructure, arrangements, and social relations on the ground below. In all its splendor and world-in-miniature dynamism, Air Force One is an index of stasis.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Minor Collision

This is a report on the end of airports.

Today two 737s clashed their wings on the taxiways of LGA.

One was a Southwest plane, the other American Airlines.

Pictures snapped and tweeted by passengers showed the broken winglet of the Southwest plane, and stupefied workers ambling around the scene, dragging the shorn part across the tarmac.

This was the moment they'd all been waiting for. The moment they'd trained for.

But it was over so soon. No injuries, no fiery crash.

One passenger reported it felt like a car sliding on ice.

It is likely that this incident will turn out to cost several hundred thousand dollars in repairs, rebooking, & investigation. But insurance policies and corporate redundancies will surely mitigate any losses.

The collision will be chalked up to holiday travel, taxiway congestion, and perhaps an air traffic controller (or crew) having taken on an extended shift.

For the affected passengers, it will likely recede into a good holiday story, a not-quite airplane disaster, a mere brush with terminal mortality.

Many years from now, this event may emerge as a key entry in the index of the end of airports. A cracked winglet, amused passengers, gaping ramp workers, eager social media audiences.... Another weary delay in the daily life of air travel.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

The End of Airports


The End of Airports is a sequel to (and kind of a prequel, too) and companion for my book The Textual Life of Airports: Reading the Culture of Flight. Extending from the theories in my first book, but written more like creative nonfiction (sometimes travel writing, sometimes cultural criticism), The End of Airports traces speculative paths around and through airports, and charts a constellation of contemporary puzzles and crisis points that increasingly riddle human air travel. This book has been thrilling to write & put together because it stretches across almost 15 years of travels & thinking about airports. I'm finishing the final manuscript this week, and the book will be published by Bloomsbury in September 2015.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Terminal 2, STL

The Southwest terminal (Terminal 2), separate from but adjacent to the main Lambert-St. Louis airport terminal (Terminal 1), is spare: it is severe and efficient. It provides a rarified airport experience, with no frills or festoons, save perhaps the red vintage airplane suspended in one corner, awkwardly poised above an area apparently converted after the fact into a release-valve security checkpoint. (They open this checkpoint when the main checkpoint line gets clogged.)

The gate area is minimalist—not in an ultra-modern way, but simply pared down to the bare necessities. Still, it has frayed ends. For instance, plastic wrapping balloons from the ceiling every fifteen or so feet, evidence of some interior ductwork or insulation project that seems to have been left incomplete.

Tucked into one wall, between a vending machine and a family restroom, there stood for some time a defunct single computer kiosk advertising free INTERNET. The screen was dark, its electrical cord severed. Still, it stood there for a while—a minor monolith, a disengaged paean to our new century of information-on-demand and democratic flight.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Teaching at the End of the World

Below is the short paper I gave at the BABEL Working Group conference at UC Santa Barbara earlier this month. I presented alongside four of my wonderful colleagues from Loyola, and we were all talking in various ways, coming from different angles, about what it might mean to be "teaching at the end of the world." And relatedly, here's an ad that Loyola has running on the St. Charles streetcar line now—it's me, teaching one of my Literature & Environment seminars:

Whenever the weather is even minimally conducive, I take my classes outside and we sit in a circle to discuss the day's reading. I keep lobbying our university administration for clever seating emplacements around our campus that could be utilized on such occasions, but to no avail (at least not yet). So we bivouac on a piece of sun baked sod, half-shaded by a live oak for those who overheat easily, and we pull out our copies of Robinson Crusoe or Frankenstein, Tender Buttons or White Noise, and a student invariably will ask, Why is the ground always wet? Well, because we're under water, basically. That’s why when an oil tanker churns by, headed upriver, you find yourself looking up to see it: the Mississippi River is actually above us. It’s also in part why the fire ants are vigorously, ceaselessly building up their dirt mounds: to achieve a modicum of dry land on this eroding edge of the continent. But no, you won't find much under 'ecology' if you search for the fire ant on your smart phone. It hits too close to home. Yes, the delta is vanishing at a rate of a football field each hour. No, I don't know how long that gives us here. Let's open to page 36, and think about how the novel is founded on the non-simple space of the beach...

The New Orleans airport is the second lowest airport in the world, at about four feet above sea level. (Only Amsterdam’s Schipol airport is lower, at eleven feet below sea level.) New Orleans is about to embark on the construction of a brand new, state of the art, world-class airport terminal: an aerotropolis. How am I supposed to incorporate this building project, this mirage of progress, into my teaching and research? Will this space stand simply as a shimmering and seamless transition zone for new students arriving each fall semester? Will the new airport be unquestionable, an utterly straightforward social text? Will our baggage arrive bathed in a sublime aura, at last? Will the air be safe from contaminants, diseases, and other pollutants? Or will the new control tower stand like Ozymandias, an object lesson for a poetics of the brazen?

Sometimes it seems like the most important thing I can do these days in my classes is to preserve a space for slow reading: 75 minutes, two times a week, where we can sit or crouch—be beached—on sinking ground, and read words on pages, to think about these words together, how narrative congeals (or not). If only then to find ourselves in the world, the actual world with all its consequences. To rephrase a line from the preface of Nietzsche's Daybreak, at present it is not only my habit, but even my taste—a perverted taste, maybe—to teach nothing but what will drive to despair every one who is “in a hurry.” Slowness—it seems to me that this is one of the truly inestimable skills, maybe even a form of art, that we can model to our students, and even teach them how to do it: how to decelerate before meaning. Yet how do I balance this desire with or measure it against the simultaneous urgency of ecological awareness?

I worry that I am regressing. A major highpoint of my five and a half years so far teaching at Loyola University New Orleans happened last November, when I joined my biology colleague David White, who takes about thirty students out with him each fall on an evening canoe trip in the bayous surrounding New Orleans. The students get a crash course in “landscape ecology,” or the multiple scales and mosaics of relationships and processes taking place across given ecosystems. The trip included several floating stops to discuss the invasive and prolific Triadica sebifera (or Chinese tallow, or popcorn tree), the water hyacinths spinning by, the channels dredged by humans a century ago—in short, the objects and animacies of this fragile if fecund riparian system. By the end of this evening on the water, the students seemed enchanted—if also perhaps a little exhausted. I had watched them slow down, pay attention, listen. David took extra care to draw attention to the quietude, the sounds of the bayou away from the highway we'd arrived on.

But I digress. I was talking about regression. Ever since that night on the bayou, or maybe it started before, I’ve found myself wanting to get back to teaching nature writing, that na├»ve genre, that earnest kind of literature that strives contradictorily for “contact, contact!” in Thoreau’s words. What is happening to me? I’ve read my eco-criticism carefully, I know my theory, I wrestle with the Derridean aporia of “nature as self-proximity”—why do I want to linger with my students in literary representations of nature, simulacral ecologies as they are? What are these paradoxical pleasures, being in nature and learning to see it (as if ‘it’ even exists!) in literature?

As we paddled back to the vans, through pitch black night, an eerie spotlight darted erratically up ahead, piercing the skein of cypress trees and Spanish moss. A low rumble and sputter echoed across the water. It was hard to make out what it was that was approaching us, but gradually it appeared: Cajuns, a bunch of them, a gaggle of friends or maybe a family, piled into an unbelievably clamorous boat—if you could call it that—a mishmash craft weighed down with…things, chugging through the black night aiming a military grade spotlight, looking for alligators (or so David thought). It was a strange moment, us gliding by in our canoes and them in camouflage jackets rumbling past, blasting us with pivot-mounted incandescence. No words were exchanged, not out of tension or spite but merely due to the noise of their gurgling motor.

Maybe I believe, channeling Nietzsche once more, that reading nature writing itself, perhaps, will not “get things done” so hurriedly: but it will teach how to read well: that is, slowly, profoundly, attentively, prudently, with inner thoughts, with mental doors ajar, with delicate fingers and eyes… This is my regression, and I’m afraid it’s not going away anytime soon.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Real World College

Below is a brief talk I recently gave to the Visiting Committee to the College of Humanities & Natural Sciences at Loyola.

As an undergraduate I went to a rather crazy, small liberal arts college in the Midwest—I won’t name names.

I spent the first two years there wondering what I was doing, where I was going, how I was supposed to figure out my major…

Then about halfway through, the liberal arts mission of the college kicked in. I found that I had amassed many English and Philosophy courses, without really even trying. The question of my major was magically settled. My physics, biology, and Latin classes had captivated me just as much—and I continued taking courses in those disciplines, as well.

I ended up loving my education for all its eccentricities. It gave me an intellectual foundation for which I am more grateful every year.

I earned my PhD from a very different kind of school: the University of California, Davis, where I specialized in American Literature and in critical theory. At UC Davis, you also earn an obligatory degree in wine tasting, because it has one of the world’s foremost oenology & vitaculture programs, and the graduate students and local wineries always need volunteers to taste their new vintages. This skill came in handy once I was on the job market, and I still think my description of a certain Rhone wine at Herbsaint could have played a key role in landing me this job.

Needless to say, I was thrilled to be offered a position in the English department in 2009, and to be back on a small campus. And I have thrived here: I love my students, and I have had generous support from my Dean and my home department over the past five years to carry out my research, which focuses on a wide range of cultural studies topics. In 2011 my book on airports in American literature was published, and just this past month my academic study of the actor Brad Pitt came out. (Don’t ask.)

I currently edit a series of essays and pithy books published by The Atlantic and Bloomsbury, called Object Lessons: each author takes on a specific object, and writes about it for a general audience. Topics in this series include blankets, hotels, dust, golf balls, phone booths, trees, bread…I could go on and on, for the series is of infinite scope.

In all my writing projects, I have involved students in the publication process—giving them hands-on, real world experience that they can take with them once they leave Loyola. I recently heard from one graduate who took an editorial position with North Atlantic Books in San Francisco; another student emailed me just last week to say she’d been offered a highly selective internship position with Columbia University Press. I’ve also seen my former students go on to terrific graduate programs at institutions all over the country, in fields ranging from film production and creative writing to liberal arts and media studies.

At Loyola, in the College of Humanities and Natural Sciences, I’ve been able to integrate my teaching and scholarship at very turn: whether this means offering an interdisciplinary seminar on airports for first year Honors students, or creating a senior-level seminar on the late (and very challenging) author David Foster Wallace—a course which several students demanded, and who was I to say no?

When I was in college, one of my philosophy professors, Dr. Stephens, had this intense teaching habit: if a student would answer a question with a vague or  academic answer, Dr. Stephens would slam his hand down on the table and practically scream, "Make it real!

Likewise, but perhaps a bit more gently, I always try to impress upon my students that the distinction people make between college and the so-called ‘real world' is a false one. It’s just that it is up to us to actually treat college as a real world, with real implications. Whether I’m discussing postmodern literature with students, or working to help them write vivid prose ready for publication, I’m constantly reminding them that our ideas matter, and that they shape and are shaped by the world around, a world that urgently needs us to be aware and involved.

In the College of Humanities and Natural Sciences, I think we share this feeling, this real-world obligation toward our teaching and scholarship. We’re not detached, and the students recognize this, and they thrive when they realize that we are earnestly inviting them into real world adventures that require intellect and imagination. I’m glad to be a faculty member at Loyola, and excited to see what the future holds for our college.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Waiting for books in transit

Somewhere outside of New York two boxes of books sit on a truck, or in an airplane hold, in transit.  Perhaps they are at the bottom of a stack of other boxes, pressed down upon, suffocating. Or maybe they rest happily at the top, or somewhere indifferently in between. Maybe they have been tossed recklessly into a dark musty storage container and lie askew. Possibly they have already separated, and are following their own trajectories....

The contents of these boxes is this book whose cover is shown above, the Brad Pitt book, over ten years in the making, a weird and wild assemblage of essays on the actor and celebrity. It's either a field-changing, definitive study of a most popular figure...or it's simply another edited collection by obsessed and arguably deranged academics. Or else it is something else entirely. It might be all three of these things.

My editor in New York emailed me the other day to say she'd seen it, held it, and that it came out great—and here I wait, practically holding my breath, for the box to arrive. Waiting to hold it in my hands, to flip its pages and see what sort of beast it is that I'm at least partially responsible for creating.

I recently wrote a small piece on the book for the site Everyday Analysis, and my co-editor Robert Bennett composed a post for the Bloomsbury Film & Media Studies blog. These are two takes on the project now that we've been away from it for a few months. Still, you'll see that it left its marks on us.

Now there's nothing more to do but wait. We must wait, wait for them to be trundled across the country, a box to New Orleans and a box to Bozeman, Montana. And then, when they arrive, what then?

Friday, August 8, 2014

The Kettle Pond

the kettle pond

A few years ago I took a walk in a huge swath of forest that is officially part of the National Lakeshore, but which is weirdly cut off from the rest of the park, in the middle of Leelanau County. That time, I got lost. A friend and I had gone looking for these remote kettle ponds—old glacial scrapes that are spring fed and stay full of water—and after we'd explored the ponds and marshes, we tried to take a bearing and head over a high ridge by way of a shortcut back to the dirt road where we'd parked my car. This was not a great idea. We became disoriented and wandered around for hours before seeing an optical illusion of a barn through the trees—a barn that turned out to be nothing more than a grove of red pines in eerily formal rows, such as they were planted by the CCC in the 1930s. But there was a two-track along the pines that lead back to the road we'd taken in the first place, so eventually we found the car.

The feeling of being lost in the woods stayed with me. On the map the area doesn't seem so big; the National Park Service barely (and even then, ambiguously) identifies it as part of the Park, and there are no signs. In person, its valleys and ridges are overwhelmingly enormous. There are not really any trails to speak of, except for meandering deer paths and occasional random four-wheeler tracks that abruptly end, leaving you facing an uncertain infinity of choices in terms of which direction to go. What appear at first to be straightforward slopes turn into undulations that loop back on themselves, and it is just the most uncanny feeling to be unsure of whether you've seen a certain fallen aspen before, or if this is a different one, and if so, where are you now, it looked like the same place, but you've been walking for ten minutes and you should be somewhere else, unless you got turned around somehow, oh wait, there's a trail ahead, oh no, it's just a slight depression caused by natural drainage after the last thunderstorm....

These perceptions are especially fresh in my mind because last week I went back out to this place twice. While I had never quite shaken off the thrill of being lost (and of course finding my way back), there was another part of those woods that stayed with me: in one of those kettle ponds, when I crept up to the edge of the crystal clear water, I stared wide-eyed as two big (at least for this northern climate) largemouth bass swam within feet of me, looking up at me as if in sheer curiosity. The vision of those fish stayed with me. I wanted to get back out there with my fly rod.

Can you spot two bass in the shallows?

So I returned to the kettle pond with my fly rod, only sort of getting lost the first day, and only vaguely the second day (but feeling ready to be completely lost again at any moment, both days). I discovered the pond to be full of bass as well as some strange hybrid sunfish with larger-than-normal mouths. The fishing was exciting to say the least, but it was no walk in the park (even if it was, in a way). First there's the hike there, which was riddled with mystery—at one point the second day I found myself convinced I'd lost my way, and I felt ridiculous standing in a valley of ferns with no water in sight, holding my fly rod. But finally the cedar thicket materialized and the pond was there.

The fishing proper was rather exhausting and maddening, as the pond is basically a bog; there is no sandy bank to stroll along or wade into. While it looks shallow, the bottom is essentially depthless. You sink right in up to your waist and are surrounded by the tall bulrushes that encircle the pond, whose barbed spikelets manage to constantly grab your fly line, your fly, your short, you find yourself totally tangled up about every three minutes.* The bass would shoot across the shallows dramatically and grab my fly off the surface of the water, but then they'd burrow down into aquatic micro-forests of muskgrass, creating the impression of suddenly having the entire world attached to the end of the line. Or they'd take long leaping runs across the pond, the reel drag screaming against my palm. And every time I'd want to move along the shoreline, I had to heave with great effort to break the suction around my feet and legs as I would have slowly sunk deeper into the silt muck as I'd been fishing. And while the fish are relatively gregarious, it's still very easy to spook them; in the glassy water they are used to having to flee from osprey and eagles who perch on maple and oak branches fifty feet above.

I'm trying to write this in a way that it isn't merely a fishing story, and isn't simply stock nature writing. I'm writing this with the beginnings of my next book in mind, the book I'm now calling (borrowing from the title of a chilling Hemingway story) Up in Michigan. I've got this idea of writing a hybrid book that blends my jaunts in Michigan with my long running interests and teaching in literature & environment. I don't know how this is going to work, or if it even will, but I've got the inkling of something, some narrative collection of essays that at once celebrates a place, and explodes 'place' as a concept.

A valley of maiden hair ferns disrupts my sense of place

*At dinner a few nights later, a couple great friends told me they'd taken up the minimalist fly fishing technique Tenkara, and it occurred to me that this would be a perfect way to fish the kettle pond. 

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Revisiting Bozeman

I've just returned to Michigan from Bozeman, Montana, where I revisited the airport I worked at over ten years ago. So much was the same, and yet there were also innumerable differences everywhere. I was there to observe and write, and I spent several hours wandering around taking pictures, jotting down notes. I met with the Airport Director Brian Sprenger, and he talked to me about recent trends and challenges; then he gave me a tour, focusing specifically on the major expansion and redesign of a few years ago. I was particularly excited to see the new high-tech baggage makeup area behind the check-in counters, with its overhead conveyors and multiple drop-points. When I worked at the airport, moving baggage around was a pretty ad-hoc endeavor—at least compared to the new system.

It was an emotionally intense trip (for reasons that I won't get into here), and strange if also invigorating to see the airport, 'my' airport, this relatively minor travel site that has been somewhat major for me, this place I've written about and thought about so much over the past several years. 

What struck me almost immediately upon my arrival was the indifference of the airport. It's just an airport doing its job, moving people in and out of the state—just like it always has, cooly accepting eager fly fishermen and crisp cowboys (I'm using the masculine here on purpose), and then a few days later spiriting these same forlorn souls away in tightly packed tubes.

And yet...there are things going on here that are not only unique to Bozeman, but which are indicative of broader currents and snags in the culture of flight. I'm writing about these things as a way to conclude my book The End of Airports, which sweeps from my own ethnography of the airport in 2001-2003, to more current episodes and dilemmas that riddle air travel.

My tagline for this book is that I'm not writing an obituary for airports, but more like a mystery. What are these gray places we pass through, only always to leave behind in our minds? What makes these concentrated nodes of hubris and gaudiness at once so remarkable and so forgettable? How do we inhabit their ambiguous boundaries? Where do airports begin, and where do they end? How does air travel fit into our era of 'new media', where things move so much faster than the speed of planes?

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Writing about place

beneath bracken ferns, during hide & seek with Julien

It's impossible to write about place.

I was chatting with my friend Ian the other day and he mentioned in passing, "writing is impossible." We had been talking about how hard it really is to write clear coherent prose. It is. Difficult, I mean. Just try following your thoughts and sensations for five minutes, and putting them into neat prose.

Then you add a topic, or god forbid a 'theme', and it gets harder still. Focus, attention, word by word, sentence to paragraph. Logical propositions. What was I talking about again?

It's impossible to write about place. I've been thinking about this book I want to write about the little corner of Michigan where I'm from, the Leelanau peninsula. Part nature writing, part memoir, part environmental theory, I want the book to be both a testament to this place and to reflect the reading, thinking, and teaching I've done on literature & environment over the past decade or so. Every spring I get excited and inspired to work on the book when I leave New Orleans and arrive for the summer.

Then I get up here and I am almost instantaneously overwhelmed by the borderless expanses of the place. I'm not referring to its geography, so much. I mean it's bigger than Walden Pond but not that big. I've walked a portion of its shorelines (at least on the west side of the peninsula), and have meandered through its various woods and meadows, during all hours of the day and at night. And anyway, people have written good books about entire National Parks and other such privileged or delimited zones before. That's not the problem.

There's something about the saturated quality of this place, all the personal psychological inroads as well as two-track off-roads, the cultural hotspots and weird spaces beyond the grid. I have thought of this book as a 21st-century Walden, or perhaps better an anti-Walden. "Anti-" in the dialectical sense, trying to locate some of the contradictions and tensions within the thinking that Thoreau so well tied to a specific place and its natural registers. But so far, I keep running into nearly impenetrable thickets of things, thoughts, and otherwise thorny obstacles. I suppose it is a good thing—there is a lot I want to write about here, even as it pushes back on me.'s impossible to write about place.

Now that I think about it, maybe this is why I often begin my freshman writing courses with a seemingly simple assignment: write about your room. Just describe it as best you can. How long? I don't know, see how much you can notice, what's around. Two pages, three, four—how far can you go? It's an exercise in attention to detail and sustained focus on a single, bounded place. But the boundaries quickly become blurry and elastic. I recall one student last fall who ended up lingering on his dorm window and gradually came to the realization that inside and outside were not as a clear and distinct as he'd assumed. He wondered, did the screws that bolted his window closed count as part of his room? The glass? And if so, just the interior side, or the weather-beaten exterior, as well? Impossible to decide.

I'm having similar conundrums as I play hide & seek with Julien in the valleys, as I canoe inland lakes shrouded in mist. What is this place? How can one draw a perimeter around it, in thought? When does the writing begin, from where should it take off?